Henri de Castries: Pragmatism with a Human Touch

Business managers often point out that people are the greatest asset of any company. In interviews, CEOs unfailingly express a debt of gratitude to their dedicated workforce. However, this debt does not prevent them from sending a few workers home every now and then to prop up share prices and assure investors that their business remains lean and mean.

Henri de Castries, CEO of French insurance company AXA, is much the exception to the rule: He actually does as he preaches. Mr De Castries runs a people-centred company and takes a genuine interest in the well-being of those who work for it. He is happy to take time for a chat and will personally address any grievances detected. Mr De Castries is a charmer as well. He is famous for gracefully chastising financial analysts who insist on maximising short-term profits to the detriment of long-term corporate health. More importantly, he gets away with it and has remained the darling of the investor community.

More than just the CEO of a company that last year netted €4.5bn in income, Mr De Castries is also chairman of the Steering Committee of the Bilderberg Group – a somewhat secretive conclave of leaders from business and politics instigated in 1954 by Prince Bernhard of The Netherlands who was to fall from grace for his dubious role in the Lockheed Affair of 1976.

The affability Henri de Castries is known for stands him in good stead at the Bilderberg Group. Here, it is all about building solid private relationships that allow for behind-the-scenes consultations should issues arise. At the Bilderberg Group friends help friends. And for that to work, these friends need plenty of privacy.

The topics discussed at the group’s annual meetings, billed as informal affairs, are not divulged. In 2008, a highly unusual press statement was released by the American Friends of Bilderberg which explained that the group does not propose resolutions, take votes, or issue policy statements.

Though the Bilderberg Group maintains an, again, informal secretariat in the Dutch university town of Leiden, it does not have any permanent members aside from those sitting on the steering committee. The guest list for the annual conference changes each year and names get dropped, and others added, for no apparent reason. Usually, no more than 150 people receive an invitation to attend a Bilderberg meeting. The one thing attendees have in common is that they are either European or North American. Bilderberg is a strictly Atlantic affair.

The group was started in the 1950s to stem the tide of growing anti-Americanism in Europe. Its Belgian, Dutch, and Polish founders wanted to create a forum to foster transatlantic cooperation and understanding with a view to strengthening the political, economic, and military ties between Europe and the United States.

On the American side, it was initially the CIA that answered the Bilderberg call. The stage was set for conspiracy theorists the world over to see the Bilderberg Group as set on world domination. However, nothing could be further from the truth. While the group Mr De Castries discreetly helps steer does include people wielding significant chunks of power, the collective now also embodies the demise of the West’s influence in a multipolar world.

Behind-the-scenes manoeuvring and the trading of favours between friends remain of paramount importance to smoothing differences, facing common challenges, and clearing misconceptions. If Russian President Vladimir Putin had a close personal friend of some societal standing in the West, he might have been told to stop acting like a spoilt brat.

That is how the Bilderberg Group is supposed to work; as a conduit for common sense to prevail. As such, Mr De Castries is the right man for the job: He is known to severely dislike power-tripping and prefers to infuse cold pragmatism with a warm human touch. Meanwhile, the Bilderberg Group is at the cusp of outliving its usefulness. As a geopolitical concept, Atlanticism has now joined the dodo in the realm of the extinct.

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